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Gender and Femininity in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

Gender-differentiated societal constructs have been heavily entrenched within public life for centuries. Throughout history, woman has always been suppressed to an extent, be it in the lack of an equal education, or in her expected subservience.  During the early-twentieth century, however, attitudes began to change.  Spheres such as University education were opened to women, and whilst for rather a long time there were limitations – not being able to graduate, for instance – change was on the horizon.  Gender and femininity correspondingly played a major role in the fiction of this period, and aspects of both prevail within Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.  The disparity between femininity and masculinity against societal constraints is exercized; one can pick out characters who both reflect and discard the qualities of their sex in terms of perfection, and those who cross gender boundaries.

            Clarissa Dalloway incorporates many of the feminine qualities deemed to be accepted fora  woman of her elevated middle-class status, but goes further: ‘her existence profoundly controverts the ideology and power relations of her culturals phere’. [1] She cares about the image which she projects onto the world, and her ‘central elegiac consciousness’ [2] is self-reflective; the balance between her internal and external world is shown as a struggle.  Her middle-class world allows her to concentrate her energy upon frivolities, and living up toe xpectations which others have of her: ‘her capacity for genuine self-examination and philosophical rendering, and her ability to allow herself to feel a range of emotions, even painful ones… [allow her] a full measure of mobility’. [3]  Although not the most maternal of women, she has successfully borne a daughter, Elizabeth – the sheer antithesis of her -and has therefore filled the biological requirements which society expected of her: ‘this woman did nothing, believed nothing; brought up her daughter’. [4] She ‘has retreated from her husband, but her chastity becomes a position of strength’. [5]  Despite this, elements of Clarissa’s past show that she is not entirely the embodiment of the perfect female; an infatuated sexual relationship with her old friend, Sally Seton, is alluded to,[6] which shows that her younger self went against societal expectations.

 Woolf’s other female characters embody many differing andenduring attributes. Lady Millicent Bruton is a member of high society; whilst there is no need for her to seek employment, she becomes highly invested in charitable work to fill her time. Lucy, Clarissa’s maid, is a hybrid; she is a domestic female, who ‘had her work cut out’, but the Dalloways are reliant upon her for affirmation and smooth living. [7]  It is suggested that Lucy essentially fills a traditionally masculine role. Ellie Henderson, Clarissa’s nervous and ‘weak’ [8] cousin is the archetypal feeble woman. She is a typical spinster, with a small income and lack of career. [9] She is viewed as dull at the party, and therefore stands by herself for the duration, observing all. [10] Incontrast, Aunt Helena is a relic of a strict English society – the very same one which Clarissa finds so confining – and is perhaps the most perfect embodiment of femininity.  Whilst she is elderly and has exhausted her societal purpose, she has devoted her life to botany, and is still the formidable elder woman that society might have expected she would become. [11]

Whilst Woolf focuses upon her middle-class protagonist, we also meet working- and upper-class characters along the way, strengthening the notion of ‘the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side’. [12]  Rezia has strong ideas about class and affect; she is so determinedly attached to middle-class ideals, and is resentful that she is not presenting the image she should.   With regard to male characters in Mrs Dalloway, Septimus Smith’s biological make-up includes feminine characteristics; his pursuits include making hats with his wife, Rezia. For him, masculinity is negative; he is entirely consumed by his memories of wartime, and cannot progress with his life: ‘Septimus had fought; he was brave; he was not Septimus now’. [13]

Mrs Dalloway presents the woman as a flâneuse; the wealthier characters have the newfound freedom to wander. This was partly a result of the war, the city reshaping itself as a more feminine space to make up for its absence of males, and also as a result of gender politics. Prior to this, there was a prescribed idea of who could walk where; middle-class women, subject to class structures and state apparatus, had to be chaperoned. The only women who had the freedom of the city were the lower classes for purposes of necessity, and prostitutes: ‘In public women were presumed to be both endangered and a source of danger to those men who congregated in the streets’. [14] Woolf herself had experience as a flâneuse: she ‘could flit in and out of other identities and relish the surface spectacle of the city’. [15] She viewed ‘rambling the streets of London’ as a great pleasure. [16]  In Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa perambulates through London, indulging in memories and the process of self-clarification. Woolf cleverly subverts patriarchal control with the example of Peter Walsh following a woman, who opens her front door, and then views him as an object. [17] This role reversal, in which women are able to own property and be in control, acts as a figurative emasculation.

The city, then, both stifled and enabled female independence. The commodification of time is essentially gendered – Clarissa controls her own time; Rezia controls that of her shellshocked and dependent husband, Septimus; and those in the lower classes often have such rigid daily household structures that they cannot even take a few moments out of their day to buy some flowers for the party. [18] Rezia’s structure alters daily. Interestingly, Clarissa defines herself in terms of her husband, demonstrating the male control which was still inherent within society; early in the novel, or instance: “this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway”’. [19]

The changing times, which came along with the advent of modernity, and were catapulted by postwar conditions, also afforded females a fertile breeding ground to forge careers for themselves. Mrs Dalloway, though, was of a social standing that did not deem a career for a female either necessary of worthwhile; she was ‘kept’ and provided for by her husband. Woolf demonstrates what post-First World War London life was like for a relatively well-off female with comparatively few responsibilities. Whilst she does take into account examples of those females without the luxury of freedom – Lucy, and, to an extent, Rezia – she still places strong focus upon the middle- and upper-classes, circles in which she herself moved. [20] In this manner, differing portrayals of females, whose lives were centered around the city, are presented, showing that whilst modernity afforded new opportunities and allowed women to seek their own independence, the traditional role of the female – as a kept woman or otherwise – was still highly accepted

Kirsty Hewitt, University of Glasgow


 [1] JacobLittleton, ‘Mrs Dalloway: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman’, Twentieth Century Literature (Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1995), pp. 36-53.

[2] Christina Froula, ‘Mrs Dalloway’s Postwar Elegy: Women, War, and The Art of Meaning’, Modernism/ Modernity (9.1, 2002), pp.125-63.

[3] Jesse Wolfe, ‘The Sane Woman in the Attic: Sexuality and Self-Authorship in Mrs Dalloway’,Modern Fiction Studies (Vol. 51,Number 1, Spring 2005), pp. 34-59.

[4] Woolf, p. 138.

[5] Jane de Gay, Virginia Woolf’s Novels and the Literary Past (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 89.

[6] Woolf, pp. 37-40.

[7] Woolf, pp. 44-45; pp. 181-82.

[8] Woolf, p. 186.

[9] Phillips, p. 20.

[10] Woolf, p. 185-89.

[11] Woolf, p. 37.

[12] Leon Edel, Bloomsbury: A House of Lions (London: The Hogarth Press, 1979; repr. London: Penguin, 1981), p. 93.

[13] Woolf, p. 27.

[14] Walkowitz, p. 21.

[15] Parsons, p. 202.

[16] Woolf, Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; repr. 2009), p. 177.

[17] Woolf, pp. 58-61.

[18] Woolf, p. 5.

[19] Woolf, p. 15.

[20] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996).


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